MEETING THE MINDS BEHIND ‘PLATAU’

On Saturday morning, March 23rd, the two co-founders of Platau, Sandra Frem and Boulous Douaihy, were guests of the 4th edition of Breakfast with an Architect. The name of their practice ‘Platau’ stands for ‘platform for architecture and urbanism’. The two guests are part of a team of four, along with Romeo Chahine and Samir Bitar.

Along the sound of spoons and plates jingling and surrounded by the comfort of Gemmayze’s ‘Aaliya’s Books’, the two were interviewed by Elie Salameh, one of Architects for Change’s team leaders. The gathering started with asking the typical question: how did you start your practice? Both sat calmly with obvious harmony in their attitude and told us that it started with them being friends throughout architecture school — at the Lebanese University, class of 2004.

Sandra then went to pursue a Master’s degree at MIT while Boulous pursued his own Master’s degree at the University of St Joseph. After uniting to work on some projects together, they realized that their vision and philosophy in architecture align. That is when they both quit their jobs and founded Platau in 2010. With a mature approach in problem-solving and after completing some projects, their architectural mindset has crossed traditional boundaries. Both firmly believe that architecture and design cannot exist without keeping the urban context in mind. Architecture has a lot of influence beyond the designed building and even beyond the specific city/town, it is in. Realizing that power architecture possesses and how a wide variety of topics one with a background in architecture can tackle widens the scales any architect works on.

Their approach revolves around finding creative solutions to their design problems and not just applying what the client asks for. The challenge of creating a great design is getting to know the client and their needs well, coming up with design solutions that are fulfilling for both the client and them as designers, and at the same time abiding by the building code and fitting the client’s budget. There are no ideal clients and no ideal project requirements. There will always be a shortcoming somewhere. This is what makes a good architect’s job meaningful as they develop the ability to detect design sensitivities that the client has and work upon them.

They first shared this approach with the public by introducing their participation in Beirut Design Week 2018: Scales of Practice exhibition. As briefly stated in the description provided by the architects, Scales of Practice is: “an exhibition that features work by Platau, focusing on themes, processes, scales, and modes of production that are inherent to our practice.”

The five themes covered were: agency, geography, parameter, surface, and inhabitation. Agency focuses on the aspect of activism that lies within the practice. With each project, the designer has the ability to stand up for contemporary world problems and make a statement about an issue that the project typology allows.

The theme ‘geography’ tackles how each project, starting from the smallest installations to large-scale projects, affects its geographical context and topography. The theme ‘parameters’ addresses the Lebanese building regulations, how it places restrictions on Lebanese architects and how they, with enough creativity and experience, can get around them. The theme ‘surface’ focuses on the materiality of buildings and the role the building’s envelope has on the overall project. The final theme ‘inhabitation’ focuses on the impact design has on the user, how it affects their experience of living, working or simply enjoying a specific space.

ACTIVISM AND A HUMAN-CENTERED APPROACH

The founders of ‘Platau’ dedicate a huge part of their time getting involved in NGOs that work on important issues that affect the Lebanese community such as protecting heritage and aiming for a cleaner environment.

Boulous believes that even getting a group of people to discuss an issue that is timely and relevant to what society needs is enough of success itself. To encourage that, ‘Platau’ has worked on many projects in partnership with community organizations.

The environmental challenges faced today are more tangible than ever. People are directly affected by issues such as climate change and pollution. Architects who understand the main problems deeply and are capable of visualizing them make advocacy for environmental and sustainable goals easier. What really makes an impact and is what ‘Platau’ does is involving the community in the process of design, especially for public projects.

It is clear that they believe and act upon the principle that says design is a process and not an end-product. Through participatory and public workshops, they cannot but be open-minded and always willing to be a part of the community. This is a strategy to avoid alienating any project. Community is always a good option to analyze, understand and test the context of any design.

ON EDUCATION

They spoke about competitions being a very important opportunity that better be available for public projects so that young architects have a chance to have their ideas and concepts realized and possibly implemented.

During education, having access to inspiring instructors and resources widens the students’ experience and perception. This part plays a crucial role in developing an innovative problem-solving mindset. As stated by both architects, it is yet to be further developed in our universities. Human-centered design, that we do not learn at universities, is still the missing link between the architect and the community they are meant to design for.

In addition to this, conceptual projects that rely on participants offering innovative ideas offer a great platform for students to push the boundaries of thinking and implementing for any architect or designer, and thus both architects encourage students and architects to go for them.

Putting aside the growing practice they run and the projects and responsibilities they share, Sandra and Boulous are two friends learning from each other and supporting each other day by day. In a domain that is getting more competitive and complex by the minute, Sandra and Boulous are a great example of the good change that we long see in society; when architects decide to build on each other’s knowledge and evolve instead of competing with one another.

This blog post was written by Yara Ayoub and Ghina Kanawati.